By Mariya Mubeen, Mike Hermida, Kieran Delamont, and Tim KitzWhile a new year comes with new beginnings, it seems like 2020 may already be weighted — check that, energized — by spillovers from 2019 resistance. A recent report by risk assessment company Verisk Maplecroft shows that 47 countries had some form of civil unrest, and they project that 2020 will see a generous rise in that number. While technocrats, bureaucrats, and plutocrats might frown in dismay at these disturbances, we’re here to celebrate them at The Leveller, and to explore how these movements are connected with each other.
The Yellow Vests Movement
The gilets jaunes, the yellow vests: whatever you’ve heard about it, whatever you think about what they stand for, it is probably the most visible protest movement to hit a G7 nation since Occupy in 2011. Named for the protesters’ yellow traffic vests, which French drivers are required to have in case of emergency, the French-born protest has spilled over to other countries in the West — and given it an enduring and easily recognizable symbol.
We’ve come to associate the yellow vest movement in Canada with kooky far-right conservatives, anti-immigrant conspiracy theorists, and fossil-fuel cheerleaders. But the origins of the movement in France are less partisan, and more economically populist.
It started in 2018 specifically in response to a planned fuel tax hike, then grew over 2019 into a wider class-based protest that pointed the finger squarely at an economic elite and the rigged system from which they benefit. Initiated by an online petition in May 2018 and defined by a viral and eclectic list of 42 demands posted in November 2018, French citizens quickly brought their clicktivism into the real world. Protesters hit the streets demanding lower fuel taxes, a higher minimum wage, the reintroduction of a solidarity tax on the rich, and a constitutional amendment enabling citizen-initiated referendums.
For much of 2019, but especially in the early spring, protesters flooded the streets throughout France every Saturday at sprawling demonstrations that French police often met with heavy force. Protesters were violent too, at times, but as usual state-sponsored and approved violence had the upper hand, with hundred cases of serious injuries among the demonstrators. 24 protesters have lost an eye to rubber bullets meant to be fired at the legs, while an 80-year woman was killed in her home when a tear gas canister struck her in the face.
The movement has existed outside traditional labour structures — and started out rather disdainful of them — giving it a kind of free-form nature. Its political affiliations are diffuse and differ from time to time. Its supporters think this is great, a sign of a united workers’ movement that bypasses entrenched labour interests; its critics point out that it also attracts Islamophobes and anti-Semites.
Whatever its future, the yellow vests movement has inspired other wildcat strikes among transportation workers, port workers, and oil workers.
Planned pension plan reform in France, announced on December 5, has provoked a wide-reaching strike movement, including rail workers, airline staff, energy workers, and so on. The French pension plan is treasured by many as a cornerstone to the state’s social welfare system and a guarantee of their future financial security, and any attempt to reform it comes with a hefty political price.
The protests began in response to Emmanuel Macron’s plan to seemingly ‘gamify’ the national pension plan into system where you build up points over your working life, which then determines how many pension bucks you get for the rest of your life.
French workers are not necessarily opposed to pension reform or a simple, universal system. The current system can be an administrative nightmare to deal with, especially if you have worked in more than one field during your life. Yet the devil is in the details; Macron’s plan is not designed with the interests of pensioners in mind.
“Indeed, around France, working people have been getting out their calculators to work out how much they’re set to lose,” writes Alexis Moreau, in Jacobin. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that most wage earners would lose out from this.”
Since the announcements, the strikes have brought Paris’ transportation grid to a standstill and have inspired millions to demonstrate in cities across the country. It’s a more traditionally union-led strike, and has benefitted by inheriting some of the energy from the yellow vest movement as well.
The Hirak movement or Revolution of Smiles began in February 2019, as a response to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s announcement he would run for president for a fifth term. Bouteflika had been in power for 20 years, but due to a stroke during his last term, he hadn’t been seen in the public eye.
The people of Algeria believe him to be a placeholder for the ruling elite surrounding him. Realizing the full force of the protest, Bouteflika withdrew his candidacy for the election in March.
The protests have been very peaceful, with limited crackdown from government forces. The military has kept themselves restrained to prevent the possibility of another civil war like the one that began in 1991 and persisted well into the decade, racking up a large casualty count.
The protesters have not relented though, as they continue to congregate, calling for deeper changes and using social media to spread the news of protests to remote areas. They have demanded that officials who were a part of the Bouteflika government also resign and refrain from participating in future elections. Apart from a cleansing of the Bouteflika regime, the protesters have demanded a proper transition into a more democratic form of government.
Civil unrest in Iran began in November 2019, as a continuation of general strikes in 2018 related to various price increases and worker’s rights. With surrounding countries like Lebanon and Iraq pushing for changes in their respective governments, Iranian citizens also took to the streets in November in response to an increase in fuel prices.
The unrest was met with brutal crackdowns from the government — Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave free reign to his subordinates to “Do whatever it takes to stop them,” as Reuters reported. This led to the military opening fire on protesters in the city of Mahshahr.
Official reports claim the number to be as high as 148 casualties during the five-day protest. There have also been reports of protesters being shot from rooftops and helicopters, their bodies being hidden to conceal true death counts, and families being threatened against talking to media or holding funerals. The protests have also been hit with internet shutdowns to disrupt organization of the protests.
The protesters have demanded a complete upheaval of the Islamic Republic, with chants of “Death to Khamenei” and “Death to the dictator.” They also expressed discontent with Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts with Israel, Lebanon, and Egypt. The Iranian government’s deception and then subsequent admission it shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane has only exacerbated the public’s discontent.
Demonstrations in Colombia began in late November 2019 for a multitude of reasons including Indigenous safety, labour rights, and cuts to public education.
A country-wide workers’ strike took place in November 2019 in response to rumours surrounding labour reforms and pension cuts. Meanwhile, university students were protesting government corruption and cuts to public education.
These two factors, coupled with an upward trend of violence toward Indigenous people and social activists led to mass, peaceful protests known as cacerolazos. Other major movements across Latin America, especially those in Bolivia and Chile, also provided inspiration.
The government’s slow implementation of a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — proposed by the previous government — has been blamed for recent violence against Indigenous and social leaders.
The three strands of protest made common cause with one another. The demands of the now-amalgamated organizers reflect each original group’s grievances. All together, they call for more investment in public schools, higher wages, and the implementation of the peace deal. Protesters also call for improvements to the healthcare system and the elimination of riot police.
Days after the mass movement began, protesters have been met with tear gas by the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron— a branch of the National Police designed to control unrest and re-establish order.
The national government has also responded by closing borders while the municipality of Bogotá established a curfew. So far, four civilians have been killed by the police, including one Dilan Cruz, after he took a headshot from a ‘non-lethal’ projectile fired by the police. And the unrest continues…
Haitians took to the streets in June 2019, reacting to a report that revealed systemic government corruption. Protesters attacked businesses and government buildings and called for the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse.
The Senate-commissioned report investigated oil alliance PetroCaribe between 2008 and 2016. It concluded that Haiti had been borrowing oil from Venezuela, founding member of the alliance, for decades. But the Caribbean nation deferred payments promising to invest in its economy and social programs. Instead, $2 billion have gone missing and the government continues to be in debt to Venezuela. (The report also says that Moïse helped embezzle funds for banana plantation Agritrans.)
This caused hundreds of citizens, fed up with the government, to take to the streets of Port-au-Prince, who are calling for the resignation of the president. Militants have set houses on fire in Delmas, the richest neighbourhood in the island and threw rocks at police officers. Law enforcement responded with tear gas.
Protesters have also repeatedly targeted the Canadian embassy, Yves Engler has noted for Ricochet, throwing rocks and trying to burn the embassy down. They are well-aware of Canada’s foreign policy of helping to sideline democratically-elected leaders like Jean-Bertrand Aristide and prop up corrupt, repressive leaders like Moïse. That is to say nothing of the way Canada helped militarize 2010 earthquake aid to avoid popular unrest – the kind of aid that managed to build six houses with half a billion dollars in donations.
President Moïse has denied any illegal activity on his part, apologized to the Canadian government, and promised to prosecute those responsible.
The Sudanese revolution is a testament to what can be achieved when people unite under a cause. The increase in the prices of staple goods by the country’s president Omar Al-Bashir instigated protests in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. Not long after, women and youth joined the unrest, bolstering the movement. The civil disobedience began in December 2018 and endured well into 2019.
In April 2019, Al-Bashir was forced out in a coup d’état and a Transitional Military Council (TMC) was put into place to negotiate a handover to the civilian government. Unrest continued with the Khartoum Massacre and the El Obeid massacre, orchestrated by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) who supported the Sudanese government, putting a hitch in the handover process. In July 2019, the TMC and representatives for the civilian government came to an agreement for a 39-month transition period.
However, protests have continued during the transition period, with ongoing concerns over the toxic effect of mercury and cyanide release during gold mining, as well as the exclusion of women from the transitional government, and demands for a complete cleansing of those affiliated with Al-Bashir’s regime and a thorough investigation into the Khartoum Massacre.
Former union leader and first Indigenous President Evo Morales ran for his fourth re-election in October, 2019 after the Supreme Court of Justice struck down constitutional term limits. As the votes were being counted, it seemed like Morales would be just short of the lead needed to avoid an election runoff.
However, the electoral organization mysteriously stopped counting votes for 24 hours. When it resumed, it declared victory for Morales’ party, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). The right-wing opposition party and the Organization of American States (OAS) took this as a sign of fraud.
This election came in the context of Morales’ decision to nationalize the country’s massive lithium reserve. The metal is highly coveted by the United States, who has a strong hold over the OAS, for its use in cell phones and electric cars.
MAS has also been dealing with internal dissent for building a highway that crossed a protected rainforest.
These factors led to mass protests from unsatisfied citizens who marched and blocked roads — a resistance tradition dating back to the pre-colonial Incas people.
The Bolivian military took the opportunity to call for Morales’ resignation. In November, Morales fled the country and his would-be successors resigned. Shortly after, Senator Jeanine Áñes Chávez claimed the presidency.
Áñes held up a Bible when she was sworn in to represent Bolivia’s Catholic, colonial forces. As ‘interim president,’ she granted immunity from prosecution to the military.
Discontent in Venezuela began at the beginning of 2019 with the controversial re-election of President Nicolás Maduro. Since then, civil unrest has escalated to a coup d’état and a political struggle for the office of the president.
Maduro was sworn in for his second term in office in January 10, 2019. A mix of distrust in the election system and discontent about the results triggered protests the next day.
Under these circumstances, President of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó named himself interim President of the Republic under the authority of Article 233 of the Constitution. This article reads “in the absence of the President of the Republic: death, resignation, […] or abandonment of their office as declared by the National Assembly” a new popular election must take place to fill the position.
Guaidó’s declaration proved to be one of the most polarizing acts in the country.
At the national level, the country seems to be split by those who recognize him as the legitimate president and those who do not. These lines reveal deep economic and racial tensions, with white business owners in Caracas largely supporting Guaidó while racialized rural folk have kept their allegiance to Maduro.
Lately, however, Maduro has been losing support from those living in slums because of a rise in police brutality.
Each faction has taken to the streets to demonstrate their support for their respective leader.
On the international stage, Russia and China, along with some Latin American countries like Cuba, continue to support Maduro’s government, while the United States and long time Venezuelan rival Colombia have formally recognized Guaidó as president.
Violence against the peaceful student protesters protesting the at Jamia Millia Islamia University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and others has led to greater unrest in India amidst an already divided population. Religion based divides have existed within the country since its dawn, but the split has deepened over the past few years due Hindu nationalist sentiments emanating from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The student-led protests stemmed from the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill and a push by the Home Minister to enforce the National Register of Citizens. Combined, these acts could render many Muslims stateless after having lived in the country for generations.
While the Modi-led BJP government has been gradually taking steps to target marginalized populations, the recent violence against innocent student protesters in many universities and blatant discrimination based on religion has forced some of the population out of their apolitical slumber.
However many still support the government even as it curbs unrest by shutting off power and access to the internet in areas of conflict — like the state of Kashmir, which has been in a state of revolt/repression and suffering under a blackout since August 2019. The protests are ongoing with no sign of relent from the government.
Protests in Chile were triggered by a police crackdown on civil disobedience through transit fare evasions.
In October 2019, the Chilean government increased rush hour metro prices, a measure that unduly affected the poorest people of the country. In protest, high school students in Santiago — the capital and largest city — organized a mass evasion of transit prices. The police reacted by attacking students at metro stations, which quickly progressed into mass street protests.
As with the other protests of this article, activists have been faced with police brutality. Cops have attacked citizens with tear gas, rubber bullets, and other weapons, causing the UN High Commission for Human Rights to call for an independent investigation.
Dozens of people have died and hundreds more have been injured.
The protests have now evolved into manifestations of general discontent towards poverty and inequality. “It’s not 30 pesos,” said Chilean union leader Esteban Maturana, referring in an interview with Sputnik to the fare hike. “It’s 30 years of abuse.”
Protesters have called for Piñera to resign, for a new constitution, and for the government to socialize the country’s pension plan. Piñera is of a family with deep ties in the Chilean right-wing political sphere. His brother, José Piñera, was the Labour Minister under the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship who implemented radical neo-liberal reforms — including pension privatization — and created Chile’s current constitution. The president’s cousin, Andrés Chadwick, served as Interior Minister under Piñera was already forced to resign by protests.
Massive protests continue today — as the president is yet to resign — and are considered to be on par with those in Hong Kong.
In 2017, the Catalan government held a referendum on the region’s independence. 92 per cent of voters voted to leave. However, the conservative Spanish government deemed the referendum unconstitutional and therefore illegitimate. The National Police and Civil Guard (a military law enforcement institution) heavily suppressed voting and only 43 per cent of the population voted.
Last October, the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced separatist organizers to between nine and 13 years in prison for sedition and misuse of public funds, which the defendants deny. As a response, Catalan separatists — notably members of a new youth-led organization called Tsunami Democràtic — organized civil disobedience acts in Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona.
Taking inspiration from non-violent protests in Hong Kong, Tsunami Democràtic blocked roads going to El Prat Airport and other important infrastructure, such as train rails and the highway between Barcelona and Girona. They did this using their own purpose-built encrypted messaging app to organize in anonymous, decentralized ways — mimicking sea waves in their mobilizations.
2019 was also a notable year for the Spanish feminist movement. On International Women’s Day (the 8th of March), approximately 350,000 people in Madrid, 220,000 in Valencia, and 200,000 in Barcelona took to the streets to protest against institutionalized sexism and pervasive gender violence. In June 2019, the Spanish Supreme Court declared 5 men guilty of gang raping an 18-year-old woman, reversing a previous ruling which only convicted them for sexual assault. This was the first time in Spanish history that consent was included in sexual violence legislation.
Like many revolts in history, the protests in Lebanon began as a response to new taxes — in this case, the proposal to tax Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls through apps like whatsapp and facebook. This tax was a tipping point for civilian unrest. The protests began in mid-October with people filling key streets in Beirut, blaming the political class for the abysmal economic state of the country.
Lebanon’s political system follows sectarian divides that gives political authority based on the sect of the public servant. This sectarian system, exploited by current politicians, has been blamed for many of Lebanon’s problems. This combined with the lack of governmental assistance in wildfires throughout the region, daily utility issues like power cuts and poor drainage infrastructure, and a debt-ridden economy has pushed the public into the most unified, cross-sectarian civil unrest that the country has seen.
The protests have continued well into 2020, as the Lebanese public demand the resignation of the president Michel Aoun, prime minister Saad Hariri, and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, amid calls for new elections and the removal of the sectarian divides within the political system. Protesters are aware of the complacency of the current government and fear that if they leave the streets, none of their demands will come to fruition.
The unrest in Hong Kong began as a direct response to the extradition bill, which was proposed by the government in February 2019. The bill’s amendment to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance would allow fugitives to be transferred to another country’s law enforcement, including mainland China.
The people of Hong Kong saw this as a way for the Chinese government to take hold of their legal system and undermine the city’s democratic tendencies. The bill would have also allowed Chinese forces to clamp down on critics of the Chinese government. Misconduct by the Hong Kong Police Force during protests only exacerbated the situation, fueling the protesters’ mistrust in those with power.
The protest was first instigated by Demosistō, a liberal political party. It gained more traction when pro-democratic lawmakers opposed the bill in the legislature with a filibuster campaign. Soon thousands of people join in, with the protests spreading throughout Hong Kong.
The protests in Hong Kong have been hailed as one of the most innovative and technologically-advanced protests of our time. Footage spread worldwide of protesters wearing gas masks, using umbrellas and spray painting security cameras to avoid surveillance, disarming tear gas bombs, using laser pointers to throw off police and cameras, and setting up pop-up shops to provide gadgets and medical supplies to those on the front lines.
The protests were organized through online forums, allowing different groups to coordinate and congregate in flash mobs to evade police. While the protests led to the development of different groups resorting to different tactics, groups avoided denouncing or criticizing others as a mark of respect for different views within the protest and to put up a united front.
An end to the protests does not seem to be in sight, as many of the protesters’ demands are yet to be met, most prominently the resignation of Carrie Lam and an independent inquiry into the behavior of the police during the protests.
The Global Protest Wave of 2019, as pundits have called it, looks to be sweeping inexorably into 2020. The question is whether “the year of the street protester,” as The Washington Post called it, will inspire us here at home.
Might imminent ecological collapse, the growing normalization of neo-fascism, and the corporate capture of democracy prompt us to revolt? Or will we sit just at home and chill with Netflix while others around the globe put their lives on the line for freedom, equality, and a livable future?
It’s pretty easy to feel snugly numb and vaguely powerless in comfortably colonial Canada, at least for those of us living in a cocoon of relative privilege. But we Levellers bet taking real action and inciting change will feel better than just watching CGI fairy tales of spandex supergods and space wizards risking everything to save the world.